Track II diplomacy in the time of COVID-19

The Foundation's director research and engagement Suzannah Jessep considers how New Zealand could benefit from looking to Asia as we emerge from COVID-19 lockdown and what role Track II diplomacy can play in re-establishing connections in a changed world.
A man sitting at a computer looking at a graphic depicting the spread of COVID-19 around the globe

Suzannah Jessep: "...the need for diplomacy and Track II – as we contend with large-scale, complex challenges like COVID-19 – is only going to increase over time."

As weeks have turned into months and New Zealand’s focus on COVID-19 has moved from hospital emergency departments to the fate of small businesses, we have witnessed an incredible transformation of life and society as we have known it.

It has been a story of human tragedy mixed with adaptation and resilience, and of emerging blue skies in cities formally overshadowed by grey.

The strange juxtaposition between nature thriving and humankind struggling that has been brought on by the novel coronavirus has reminded us all of the fine balance we live in.

While we work hard to rebuild ourselves and our communities, and continue the fight against COVID-19, it is timely to think about whether we might be able to strike a better balance in our lives, both personally and publicly, and if so, how?

In the field of Track II diplomacy, where expert observers and analysts get together to talk about the state of the world, the question of balance is relevant.

We look at how countries relate to each other and how they strike the right balance between political order, economic prosperity and security, and we think about the pressure points between countries.

Like all forms of diplomacy, the point of Track II is ultimately to steer us clear of conflict and disorder. Or to put this another way, to strike a balance between competing national interests.

The executive director of the Asia New Zealand Foundation, Simon Draper, likes to say that we are not entering a period of global instability, but rather exiting a period of extraordinary stability brought about by the trauma of WWII. I think he may be right, and if so, the need for diplomacy and Track II – as we contend with large-scale, complex challenges like COVID-19 – is only going to increase over time.   

Over the last several weeks, the Asia New Zealand Foundation has been checking in with our Track II colleagues across New Zealand and around the world. 

COVID-19 has impacted not only what experts might be talking about, but has also impacted them personally. As we have seen with doctors passing away after treating infected patients, it has been heart-breaking to see members of our Track II community succumb to the virus.

We have also seen our academic community come under pressure, as they’ve adjusted to online teaching, with the prospect of pay cuts and cancelled courses. Others are working overtime, as they use their expertise to counsel New Zealand organisations through the changes wrought by COVID-19.    

Traditionally for the Asia New Zealand Foundation, much of our work has involved taking New Zealanders offshore – to meet with counterparts across North, South and Southeast Asia. This has given us a first-hand understanding of our Asian neighbourhood and allowed talented New Zealanders to share their insights and experiences with Asia. It’s the type of experience that it is hard to replicate on Zoom. But despite the challenges, we have seen people come together.

Although jetlag may have given way to webinar fatigue, we are no less focussed on understanding our neighbourhood and we are just as committed to helping New Zealanders thrive in Asia.

People wearing masks in a busy nightmarket

"[Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand and Taiwan] offer us a range of models and ideas to help inform our own COVID recovery."

President Trump’s media stand-ups have attracted a lot of attention over the COVID-19 outbreak. Less well known are the stories and experiences of countries such as Vietnam, Taiwan, Singapore and Thailand. These countries offer us a range of models and ideas to help inform our own COVID recovery. 

Vietnam has shown us the benefit of early contract tracing and Taiwan of strong pandemic planning, taking lessons from the SARS outbreak in 2002.

With Singapore, New Zealand is trail-blazing a new, targeted style of trade connectivity. We have tourism mega-markets, like Thailand, whose economic recovery might impact New Zealand’s own tourism market. But there is also India, keen to help countries who are feeling overly exposed to China diversify their investments. And we have China itself, now entering a post-COVID-19 phase of rebuilding both its economy and reputation.

From our conversations so far, it is clear 2020 is going to continue to deliver challenges that will test our sense of balance in the world.

In Track II, we will be looking closely at these developments and working with our ‘track I’ colleagues from government as we seek to understand the interests and actions of others and set these against New Zealand’s own evolving foreign policy interests.

While the New Zealand General Election might draw our attention inwards to domestic issues, it is worth keeping an eye on Asia.

Not only are seven of our top ten trading partners in Asia, but we are also connected through our people, and across nearly every sector of society.

Roughly 15 percent of New Zealand’s population identifies as being of Asian ethnicity, and we have many talented New Zealanders dotted throughout Asia, playing important roles in government, business and civil society. While Asia led us into the pandemic, it is also likely to lead us out.

If you’re interested to know more about what’s happening across Asia, tune on to the Asia Media Centre, which provides timely, expert reporting on Asia or visit the Foundation's website, which includes updates across all of our programmes including track II.